Cass County Tour -- Opening Night
October 3, 2015
Phoenix has always been a great town for us to see a Don Henley / Eagles show in. We’ve had some amazing experiences there. There was the time we talked our way backstage only to try to get out of having our photo taken with Don. Another time, Don sent his assistant out to fetch us during the intermission of an Eagles show. The only problem is that Lisa was in the restroom, so we never did make it backstage or find out what he wanted. When the Cass County tour dates were released, Phoenix was the only date that worked out, so we bought tickets and hoped for another interesting evening. We were not disappointed.
First and foremost. If you are purely an Eagles fan…if you like the combined efforts of the individual members better than their solo forays, then this show was probably not for you. I’ll get this out of the way here. Don did not sing any Eagles songs (with the exception of one cover made famous by the Eagles). None. No Hotel California. No Desperado. Nothing. We didn’t mind one bit.
When you first come into the theater, what you notice is the large amount of old-fashioned radios hung from the supports overhead. With the exception of a curtain on which a few lighting designs were projected, this was the only decoration. There were no special effects. Before the show, there’s your typical pre-show music playing. Some of it seemed carefully selected for the occasion…”Wild Horses” by the Rolling Stones, for example. After a while, though, something started happening with those tunes. You’d hear about 30 seconds of a song and then the sound of a radio being switched to another station…not with a modern button, but with an old fashioned dial, static and all. Songs included numbers from people like Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers and the Bee Gees. We’re pretty sure that the songs went in chronological order. That was my signal that the show was about to start. That’s what is so great about Don…he carefully crafts every aspect of his shows, including the pre-show musical experience.
As this was happening, we noticed the stagehands arranging the microphones and noticed that several of them were the type that are designed for multiple people to sing into. We had no idea what was about to happen. Finally the lights went down and the band took the stage. Everyone came to the front (with the exception of Scott Crago and bassist Lance Morrison, who I don’t think sings) and launched into Seven Bridges Road. Watching it was like watching something right out of the Grand Ole Opry. It was interesting to hear the song with women’s voices in it and I think it worked well. Don stood in the center, the obvious leader. He was dressed in black jeans, a white shirt with wide black pinstripes, a vest (not the homespun one he wore at the Greek a few years ago) and his boots. Even if you didn’t know who the people were on stage, it was obvious that he was the leader. He sounded amazing. There were no vocal problems and Don hit all of the high notes. We knew that watching this number that we were going to be in for an AMAZING evening.
Before I get too far into the review, I’m going to let you know that some of the stories and actions that will be described may not be in the exact order or have actual quotes. This is all from memory this time. I didn’t want to miss out on anything and kept only a handwritten set list through the evening.
Next up was “No, Thank You.” This is a great song and Don sang it with a lot of emotion. Unfortunately, not many people got to hear it, because the sound problems that continued through the night started during this song. Because we were up front, we could hear Don and the background singers in a sort of muffled way, but their voices were not amplified at all. This persisted for almost the entire song. The crowd got restless and tried to wave at Don to let him know what was happening. Some people started shouting. We felt bad because it seemed like Don had no idea what was going on. I was worried that Don would think “Oh man, I’m doing a song from my new album and the crowd is ready to revolt already.” Eventually the sound came back on. It was too bad that the audience didn’t get to hear this song, but maybe it was for the best because it is a little political in nature. Back during the Inside Job tour, when Don was doing meet and greets, we met him at this exact venue. It was the night of the Democratic Convention and Bill Clinton was scheduled to speak. Somehow, we got to talking about that, but then Don said, “I’m not going to talk about that tonight though.” His voice then got really quiet and conspiratorial. He whispered, “We’re in Ar-i-zon-a, you know.” We knew exactly what he meant.
I’m going to use this space to talk about the sound issues all at once. It happened several more times during the evening (but I don’t think for as long as it did during No, Thank You.”) briefly during Praying for Rain, Heart of the Matter, I Put a Spell on You, Dirty Laundry and Last Worthless Evening. While this was something that no musician wants to have happen during their show, as fans, we understood that we were also getting to witness a unique experience. First of all, during some of the well-known solo-songs, the audience helped out and sang the song while the sound was out. Don played along. While I think everyone who buys into the perception that Don is a terrible person prone to fits of rage expected him to explode when the problems persisted, I think he won over the crowd with his grace and charm and his sense of humor about the whole thing. After one song when the sound went out, Don apologized and someone in the audience shouted “It’s okay.” Don said, “Thank you, but it isn’t okay”. Don also decided to introduce the band early at one point to give the sound crew time to freak out. “And believe me, they are freaking out.” said Don. Before “Where I am Now”, a tech tried to hand Don his guitar. Don waved him off. “I don’t want that. I have to concentrate in case the sound goes out.” My favorite moment came in the middle of “Last Worthless Evening”. The sound was dropping off, but it was also coming back in with a really sharp, tinny quality that made Don sound a little like an old man. There was an extra hand-held microphone on stage. I’m not sure it was meant to be a back-up. When I’ve seen John Mayer in concert, he has a hand-held microphone on stage that is connected right to the sound board. It’s meant to let the sound engineer know about changes to the set-list or to have a conversation about a technical issue. When the artist is talking into it, you don’t hear anything…it’s just piped into headphones back at the board. During this song, Don picked up the auxiliary microphone several times and looked like he was talking into it. When whatever was supposed to happen, didn’t, Don just disgustingly dropped the mic and waved it off as well. I wish you all could have seen it. It wasn't done in an angry way. It was like resigned disgust.....like "well, great, something else doesn't work so fuck it, " and then he just tossed it back on the floor. The look on his face was pretty priceless.Don also joked about the sound issues by suggesting that the theater was built on an Indian burial ground. At the end of the show, he apologized again and thanked everyone for their patience.
Some theater goers were mad, but I think getting to watch Don deal with this, getting to chime in with the crowd on familiar songs and seeing Don show that he isn’t a total asshole who would fire his sound crew on the spot made this a very special evening.,
Third on the setlist was End of the Innocence. The version Don did was the one he did in the mid-2000s with the slow, almost acapella start. Hearing his voice ring out through the theater was exquisite. The entire audience was silent as he drew out each note. Eventually, though, the song kicks into the regular pace. Adding in a live fiddle instead of the synthesizer solo is a nice change and makes the song sound like it could be on Cass County. What was really striking during the song is that even though that song is over 25 years old, he still performs it the way he did back in 1989. Most of you have probably seen the clip of Don doing this song at the Grammy awards...with the long hair, loose around his shoulders and the heavy, brown leather jacket. The way Don stood there in Phoneix...the way he swayed and moved to the music was EXACTLY the same. Maybe it’s muscle memory...maybe he’s just a creature of habit, but watching him up on stage it was like no time had passed. Seeing this Don solo show was like coming home again.
Praying for rain is a great song to include in the live set. Don introduced it with the same story: that his ancestors were farmers and he understands people like that. He said that when he wrote it, he was thinking of Texas and our drought here, but that before the album could be released, it rained like hell in Texas (this would have been last Memorial Day when we experienced massive and tragic flooding), so he was now dedicating the song to people in Arizona and California and the west. During the song, he encouraged the audience to sing along. Interestingly enough, like Barbara has pointed out, it rained in Phoenix the very next morning. Maybe some prayers were answered.
Up next was “That Old Flame”. Don mentioned that the Internet is a scary thing because people can find you. He said that an old girlfriend tracked him down to let him know that she wasn’t angry anymore. He smiled wickedly, like maybe she really did have something to be angry about. “It was the 80s.” Joining him on this song was Lily Elise. Some of you may be familiar with Lily because she was on team Christina during the first season of The Voice. Over the course of the evening, each background singer got a turn to sing a duet with Don. As Don would say later, they are more than pretty faces. “They can sing...of course they can because they are here...they’ve got degrees and shit.” Each young lady has a unique voice and though they blend together on stage, they’ve got different styles when singing with Don. Lily has a pop-country voice and did an amazing job on The Old Flame. Erica Swindell has a more traditional country voice (she covered Dolly Parton’s part on When I Stop Dreaming) and Lara Johnston has a more traditional pop voice (she reminded us of Christina Aguilar). During the song, there were lots of encouraging smiles from Don toward Lily. When they were finished, they hugged and he said something to her that seemed like praise. When she went back to the other singers, they also patted her shoulder and said “good job.” Don looked like a proud father figure.
Don followed this with Heart of the Matter and said there was kind of a theme there between That Old Flame and this song about forgiveness. Like always, the crowd went wild. This song was done traditionally and the crowd sang along with gusto.
Don said that the next bit of show would have an autumnal or Halloween theme to it. He’s done this before and has mentioned for a long time that fall is his favorite time of year. He also mentioned this again to us when we had a chance to meet him after the Linden Courthouse benefit. We got to talking about autumn in the Northeast and mentioned that one thing we really wanted to do at one point was to attend the Pilgrim Thanksgiving they put on in Plymouth. Don seemed very interested and said that he would have to check it out. I wonder if he ever did.
Don said that the next song “She Sang Hymns Out of Tune” was included in this set because it had a mystical quality to it. He talked a bit about the songwriter being from San Francisco and said that it had been recorded by the Dillards. This isn’t a favorite of ours on the album, but live, it sort of has a singalong quality with all the musicians and backing singers joining in. He really seems to have a great time singing it.
“I Put a Spell on You” was another obvious choice for this mini-spooky set. Don worked this up and did it live for the first time back when he and Stevie Nicks were touring together in 2005. It seemed like a little inside joke about Stevie. Lisa doesn’t like this song (when anyone does it), but it does let Don go wild with his tambourine. He really plays the hell out of it during this number. The talented keyboard players are also highlighted. The crowd really dug it and that’s the important thing.
The next song, “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield” was a complete surprise. This is a Randy Newman cover and we’ve only heard Don do it once…on a horrible bootleg from Woodstock 2 (or whatever that was called). Don does it with a growly, evil inflection in his voice. It’s spooky and creepy and sexy and fun (do all of those words go together?) I think it’s great that despite having a new album to plug and despite knowing that he’s have to go above and beyond to deliver an amazing show to people who may be expecting to hear Eagles hits, that he chose this obscure little number to inject in his set.
Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” was next. This is always a favorite when it is done live. The backing singers and Don’s tambourine make it rock! I wonder why it was included in this set. It’s a bit spooky (more so when Cohen sings it) but it doesn’t have an outright “fall” connotation. Maybe it makes Don think of burning fires and pumpkin spiced lattes…who knows. We don’t care, though, because whenever he does this live, it’s a treat.
Finally, the ultimate autumnal-atmospheric song “New York Minute”. Not much new to report here. It was great!
I think to reward everyone for being patient with his trip into Fall, Don brought out mega-hit “Dirty Laundry”. Of course the crowd lost it. It didn’t help that the sound when out during this one, but the crowd did know all of the words and was able to sing along. This was before Don’s problems with the Guardian, so it wasn’t dedicated to them at this point. During this song, Don started walking over toward Steuart during the first guitar solo. Steuart laughed and shook his head and pointed to Chris, so Don turned around and trudged over to the other side of the stage. During the second solo, Don correctly came over to Stu. While they were jamming, Don looked down, saw us and smiled. He mouthed “Hello” and we said hello back and waved. We were rewarded with a huge smile from Don. That’s always fun when that happens.
Don introduced “Take a Picture of This” as the “single” with air quotes. He explained that it was what he called the “Empty Nester” song and that it has a twist at the end. He also used this opportunity to thank the crowd for not using their phones or cameras during the show and for being present. The song started, but Don returned to the microphone with a smile to remind the crowd not to “use this song as an invitation.” He laughed and it was pretty funny to see that Don gets the irony of being that the guy who bans cameras, but has a song about picture taking.
The next song was “Words Can Break Your Heart.” Don said that that song was starting off a mini-set about heartbreak and disappointment. He brought down Lara Johnston (who is the daughter of Doobie brother Tom Johnston) to sing Trisha Yearwood’s part on this. She has a very strong, contemporary voice and again, Don gave her an encouraging hug after the number was done.
“Last Worthless Evening” came next in the heartbreak set. Don mentioned that there was a story behind this song about attending a Hollywood party. He said he’s told it enough and that he wasn’t going to tell it again. He did mention that while somebody else got the girl, he got the song out of it, so he was cool with it. This song also gave yet another opportunity for the audience to help out when the sound cut out.
We were surprised to discover that Don was going to do “When I Stop Dreaming” because it seems so dependent on Dolly Parton’s vocals. Don called up Erica Swindell to handle those. Don pointed out that she was fresh out of “Once” on Broadway, but nobody in the audience seemed to know what that was except a few (FYI…Once is based on the Glen Hansard musical about Irish musicians. The staging of the show features a lot of musicians on stage as a sort of visible orchestra). She did a great job and her voice does have a twangy, country quality to it that did it justice.
Don had Chris Holt take over Merle Haggard’s (who Don said was smoking pot with Willie Nelson in Hawaii) part in “Cost of Living”. This is a great number and I think one of the new ones that the crowd was most receptive to. He didn’t have Chris come front and center, but he was the one singing when Merle would have. Love it!
After that number, the crew brought back out the group microphones that had been on stage for “Seven Bridges Road”. Don mentioned that this group of people is the best group of singers he’s ever worked with (solo!) and that they wanted to show that off. He talked about Tift Merrit and Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger and introduced Bramble Rose. The entire company (minus Scott Crago who stayed on drums and Lance Morrison who left the stage) stood around the microphones. Don handled the male parts on “Bramble Rose” and Lily Elise took the female part. What was interesting was that when Don did the Mick Jagger part, he changed his voice to sound more like Mick. It wasn’t exactly an impression…more like he just took on some of the qualities. It had to be a conscious choice, so it was an interesting one.
Don then talked about “It Don’t Matter to the Sun”. How in this day and age, companies like Target come to you and offer to put your CD front and center if you give them more songs. Don said he had these two songs. He mentioned that local girl Stevie Nicks, who sings on this one on the album was on tour in Australia, and wouldn’t be making a surprise appearance. We were huge fans of this song when Don used to do it live. His voice with minimal accompaniment is magic ringing through a silent theater. Adding the other vocalists (different girls took different parts) changed it. It didn’t make it bad…don’t get me wrong…it just lost some of its special qualities. It was still amazing and it is still a wonderful song.
Everyone seems surprised when Don does “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”. This in turn surprises us because it’s been a part of his live set for a LONG time (since 2004). He really has made it his own and we love hearing it. Don introduced it by saying that the title was true “…now more than ever.”
The show wrapped up with “Where I Am Now” which Don explained was the last song on the album … except for the Target bonus tracks. He seemed to amuse himself with this. When we first heard Cass County, I remarked that this had “show closer” written all over it. It’s a rocker, like “I Will Not Go Quietly” and it has a great ending message (the line about the victory lap). It didn’t disappoint.
Don and crew came back out for an encore and surprisingly it included another new song (Train in the Distance). It also had “Boys of Summer” and “All She Wants to Do is Dance”. When it was over, Don thanked everyone and said he hoped to be back next year.
All said and done this was a wonderful show. It is in our top 3 Don Henley shows of all time. You have to admire Don. He is very well aware that people tend not to be responsive to new songs during a show (it’s when people get up to get a beer or go to the bathroom). He included eleven (eleven!!!!) new songs, 5 covers and only 7 Henley hits. That’s ballsy folks. It’s risky and in our opinion, it worked. By interspersing the hits and covers through the set list and by being funny, open and engaging, all of the new songs worked. At one point Don said, “I hope you weren’t expecting any Eagles songs.” We know that some people were and that they probably went home disappointed. For Don Henley fans, though…for people who love his craftsmanship, his humor, his personality and his showmanship, this was one to remember for a really long time.